UPDATE at the bottom of the post
Thus Always to Tyrants /Persevering
Virginia’s Founding Fathers officially adopted the state seal on July 5, 1776. On the obverse side they chose Sic Semper Tyrannis out of admiration for the Roman Republic which triumphed over tyranny or rule by one thus, illustrating Virginia would be a government for and by the people. The reverse side highlights the gifts a democratic republic enjoys which are the blessings of freedom and peace as represented by the three Roman Goddesses Libertas, Ceres and Aeternitas.
Since Sunday afternoon of last week, Virginia’s State Seal has stared back at me everywhere I walked on the Capitol grounds. Never before had I bothered to learn what our Founding Father’s intent was behind this great seal. So I took some time to learn its history, and more importantly, its meaning yesterday afternoon. As always seems to be the case, I found myself in awe by the bounty of gifts these forward-thinking men gave all of us nearly 234 years ago. Today, however, I fear some who are honored by the voters to represent us at the statehouse may be losing sight of the privilege we bestow upon them every two or four years, and it pains me greatly to have witnessed their tawdry behavior toward the people this week.
Several months ago, I decided to start a small business. After many years of reading, researching and writing for blogs, I decided it was time to permanently add my voice to the growing world of the political blogosphere. As part of this decision, I also decided to add a Live Blog Suite that would audio record and, in some cases, transcribe Virginia’s budget process, and then branch out to legislative committee retreats, key state board meetings, important study groups and Governor’s Commissions. The business model I created, which I am in the process of patenting, is intentionally designed to bring a no spin, editorializing or bias of legislative business to the citizens of the Commonwealth. You know the good people that pay taxes to support our state government. It is a subscription service because I have to make a living. This girl wasn’t born into a wealthy family, has a trust fund or benefited from some inheritance.
After months of design and programming work and depleting my savings, The T-Room went live on February 24, 2010. During the week of March 1, 2010, I headed over to the Virginia General Assembly to familiarize myself on some of the technical challenges I may encounter when using audio equipment in several of the committee rooms. I spent several hours testing the equipment and learning the best place to set the microphone so as to capture recordings of the meetings and those giving testimony while filtering out the audience chatter. On Sunday, March 7, 2010, I was ready to roll.
On Friday afternoon, March 12, 2010, I contacted Betsy Daley, Director of Senate Finance and Robert Vaughn, Director of House Appropriations, whereby I informed them I would be attending Sunday’s budget conference meeting with an audio recorder in hand and asked them to inform the conferees. My intent was to demonstrate respect for both the process and the sensitive nature of the budget meetings. In addition, a dear friend sent a note to Sen. Houck, per my request, to give him a heads up. Sunday afternoon, after securing clearance from the Capitol Police, I headed to the ninth floor to start recording the meetings.
Unfortunately, Mr. Vaughn did not return my call over the weekend, so House Appropriations staff was caught off guard. Therefore, out of respect to them, I chose not to upload Sunday afternoon’s meetings.
To be absolutely certain all conferee’s, the Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Director’s of both House Appropriations and Senate Finance were fully informed, I sent the following email at 10:31 am Monday, March 8, 2010:
Good Morning, Conferee’s:
My name is Helen C. Tansey who is the sole proprietor of The T-Room Blog and The T-Room Live Blog Suite.
The T-Room went “live” on February 24, 2010 along with the Suite. I had hoped to offer the live blogging service during session, but was unable to due to programming challenges. However, we are “live” now and I guess that is what matters.
As of yesterday, March 7, 2010, The T-Room Live Blog Suite will be offering through subscription the following items throughout 2010:
– Current Conferee Negotiations when two or more conferee’s gather to conduct state business
– 2010 Committee Retreats
– All related 2010 Budget meetings
The Conferee negotiations will be recorded via audio ONLY. We will not offer a transcription service due to the sensitivity of the negotiations. We will ONLY post the audio as is, meaning, we will not offer any comments, editorializing, spin or take sides. It’s your words, your passion, and your message citizens want to hear NOT mine.
Therefore, if you have a desire to use this service to get your chamber’s message out via a recorded interview please let me know. I’d be honored to facilitate such an interview.
As well, The T-Room can host a “live” chat with subscribers, therefore offering you the opportunity to get your chambers information/message out to the public.
Please know that Sunday’s meeting will not be posted. The sound quality was not sufficient AND staff members appeared uncomfortable with my presence and the audio recorder. Out of respect to them, I invite you to forward this correspondence so they too will be made fully aware of what The T-Room Live Blog Suite business is about.
The rest of the meetings held throughout the year will offer both transcription and audio. The T-Room Live Blog Suite’s goal is to educate and engage the public in the state’s business; especially since they/we pay for it.
Postcard’s announcing The T-Room Live Blog Suites service will be distributed today, March 8, 2010, via the GAB mailroom.
Invitations to concerned citizens will go out later today via email.
Please add The T-Room Live Blog Suite to your press lists and all meeting notifications.
I also wish to thank Betsy Daley for the respect she showed me on Friday, and again, yesterday. I explained who I was and requested information on conferee meeting times on Sunday. Realizing I placed her in an uncomfortable position, she managed me beautifully and with respect. Thank you.
With that, you now know who that blonde was recording yesterday’s meeting. If you wish to know anything more about me and my resume, I invite you to visit the About Us tab at www.t-room.us The T-Room Live Blog Suite is located in the tabs at The T-Room Blog as well, but to make it easy for you here is the link http://www.t-room.us/blog/
Finally, in order to provide quality sound, I would appreciate your thoughtful consideration to allow me to place the audio recorder in the center of the conference table. It takes mere seconds to set it up and assure you I will be mindful of getting out of your way post haste.
If someone could please send me the time you will be meeting this afternoon, March 8, 2010, I would appreciate it. Thank you in advance.
Please feel free to use this email address for all correspondence. My cell number is XXX.XXX.XXXX for your records.
I look forward to working with you and to bringing this “live” service to the good citizens of this great Commonwealth. Thank you for your time.
Helen C. Tansey
Tansey & Associates
The T-Room and Live Blog Suite
Now that everyone engaged in the process was informed, I began recording and uploading MP3 files of the committee meetings to The Live Blog Suite.
Tuesday through Friday my mobile office was parked on the ninth floor always keeping an eye out for conferee activity. No one seemed to want to tell me when and where meetings were going to be held so I had to play detective all week. Running from hither and yon, trudging up and down steps or taking the elevators, sitting, waiting, sitting, waiting, running over to the Capitol, sitting, waiting, running back to the General Assembly building, waiting, sitting only to learn a conferee meeting wasn’t going to be held after all or it was postponed for another hour or they had already held it and were going to get back together to really meet later, of course, later was never defined, but no matter just sit and wait some more. I received neither meeting notices nor any communication via my computer or by phone. I was on my own to figure out the dysfunctional maze of the budget conference.
On Friday afternoon, March 12, 2010, the conferees and staff wrapped up the first round of committee negotiations and were ready to delve into the revenue side of the budget. The press was anxiously awaiting word to learn when the negotiations were to begin. Conferees broke for dinner around 6ish stating emphatically they would reconvene 8 pmish. The location of the meeting was related to all of us that it would be held in the Senate Finance Chamber on the 10th floor. Everyone disbursed and started trickling back in around 7:45 pm. A few minutes after 8 pm, Del’s Cox, Landes and Jones plus House Appropriations Director Robert Vaughn entered the south rear door located at the back of the Senate Finance Chamber. To their surprise, I’m sure; all of us public disseminators were hunkered down waiting on the meeting to start. The three House Conferees then walked around the dais, entered the back door of the Chairman’s office and walked across the hall to Ms. Daley’s office and closed the door. Yep, you read that correctly, they closed the door. Senator’s Stosch and Norment lingered in the Chamber with the rest of us while Sen. Colgan left for the evening and Sen. Saslaw was away.
About an hour into the conferee “closed door” meeting, Sen. Saslaw appeared and entered Ms. Daley’s office. The door was quickly closed behind him. When the door was finally opened about an hour after Saslaw arrived, I witnessed Sen’s Saslaw, Wampler, Houck and Howell and Del’s Cox, Landes and Jones along with Ms. Daley and Mr. Vaughn emerging saying their goodnight’s and disbursed. Sen. Houck addressed the reporter’s with Anita Kumar, Washington Post, being the only one to ask why the door was closed. Houck claimed it wasn’t, but try telling that to the 13 staff and reporters, and me the lone blogger who witnessed this deliberate and intentional act first hand. The door was closed AND it remained closed for nearly two hours.
According to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act § 2.2-3711 under “D. Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the holding of conferences between two or more public bodies, or their representatives, but these conferences shall be subject to the same procedures for holding closed meetings as are applicable to any other public body.” They have 44 options they can attempt to use to justify their clear violation of the Freedom of Information Act, but the majority of those go to privacy rights and I’m pretty certain that discussing raising taxes on the public at large does not fall under the rubric of personal. I’ve also taken the time to review the House and Senate Rules, and again, nothing there to give them cover.
Honestly, I remain flummoxed. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that our public servants would betray the citizens of this Commonwealth in such an overt manner. If I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it. But the most distasteful reaction hadn’t even happened yet.
A few minutes after the “closed door” meeting broke; I watched Sen. Houck head down the hall toward the 10th floor reception desk. When he didn’t return after waiting a few minutes, thought he may have visited the restroom which is around the corner, I headed to the ninth floor to see if he was down there, and damned if he wasn’t. He just finished telling the House Conferee’s that staff needed to prepare a Joint Resolution and have it ready by 10:30 am Saturday, March 11, 2010. I followed Sen.’s Houck and Saslaw and Ms. Daley out of the House Appropriation Chairman’s office located on the 9th floor, and down the hall when I casually asked Sen. Houck why they held a “closed door” meeting and he tried to give me the same snarky answer he gave to Ms. Kumar of the Washington Post (edit: corrected mispelling of Ms. Kumar’s name). I stated, no Senator Houck, you and I both know that door was closed and I’d like to know why. He stopped cold, puffed up his chest, looked me in the eye and said “you don’t want to get on my bad side, trust me.”Stunned, I stepped away, said not another word, rode the elevator to the 10th floor being certain to remain as far away from him as I could. I immediately packed up my belongings, but first wrote down with a shaky hand precisely what this man uttered and proceeded to leave. As I walked down the hall toward the reception desk, Sen. Houck was walking toward the Senate Finance Chamber. Six or seven Senate Finance staff were sitting in the reception area outside of the Chairman’s office. I felt safe enough to say “Senator, can we talk about this?” and his response was “No. I’m too tired to talk to you about any of this.” I headed out the door with nary a whisper not to return.
It became abundantly clear to me that these conferees had no intention whatsoever to conduct the people’s business in the open. The entire process was a farce. Therefore, my job over the next 12 months is to make sure the budget conference negotiations are in plain view by 2011 so the citizenry can learn who truly represents their interests and who doesn’t. My second job is to remove the complete dysfunction of the process so House and Senate staff don’t have to bring in air mattresses nor be away from their families simply so the conferee’s aren’t held accountable. How rotten is that!
As I headed home on Friday night, still shaking from the encounter, I called a friend who practices law. She advised me to make a complaint the following day, Saturday, March 13, 2010 with the Richmond Police Department, which I did. However, since he did not touch me or threaten physical harm, the Richmond Magistrate recommended I seek counsel through civil means, which I will be tackling first thing tomorrow morning, Monday, March 15, 2010.
I lobbied the budget for nearly six years and legislation for four. I know how the process works. For years I was told again and again that the budget conference meetings were off limits to the public. Hell, I worked my tail off to raise funds to pay lobbyist’s a lot of money so as to learn what was happening with budget items important to the organization I represented. To learn in 2010 that these meetings HAVE ALWAYS BEEN OPEN TO THE PUBLIC was a stunner for me. How mislead was I and why?
So, I started digging and sure enough, printed in Chapter 37 of the Administrative Code in black and white, they are open meetings and have been for decades! The saddest thing I learned while sitting on the 9th floor was learning other lobbyist’s didn’t know they were open to the public OR they knew they were open, but feared attending them because their cause, whatever it may be, would experience repercussions if they attended. Ah geez, what is that all about? So, these lobbyist’s who are paid decent money to represent their memberships don’t dare attend the meetings out of fear, yet, as a citizen of this Commonwealth they have every right too. The other disturbing thing I learned was the mainstream media, which is the Capitol Press Corp; don’t even bother to follow the budget conference committee meetings. Once in five days were there reporters. They only cover the full conference which explains why I never, in ten years of lobbying, read little to nothing about the areas of the budget I was responsible for covering. If I have to jump over hurdles and threw hoops to learn what is going on with the budget, how on God’s green earth do the citizens learn? The newspapers? Puhleeze! Out of the three traditional mainstream media sources – radio, television and newspapers – the newspaper reporters should at least be covering the committee meetings. This is where the cuts are made. This is where you learn how these cuts affect your subscriber’s quality of life.
Lastly, in 1991 Judge Randall G. Johnson heard a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia et al. v Hunter B. Andrews et al. in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, Virginia. I heard about this case some time ago but never looked into it. Shame on me! When I knew I’d be audio recording the budget conferee meetings, I wanted to be certain these meetings were public AND I could record them. So, I tracked down the case and read Judge Randall G. Johnson’s opinion which lead me to the Virginia Freedom of Information Chapter in the Code of Virginia, § 2.2-3700 Although this case is not similar in nature to the “closed door” meeting I witnessed on the evening of March 12, 2010, Judge Johnson’s opinion established precedent on what constitutes an “informal” meeting vs. a “formal” meeting. Judge Johnson’s opinion will be posted later this evening in the Live Blog Suite and will only be available to subscribers.
Under no circumstance, based on precedent, can the 2010 budget conferee’s claim that the “closed door” meeting held on Friday, March 12, 2010 in the Senate Finance Director’s office an “informal” meeting. Especially given the fact that Senator Saslaw hurried back from dinner arriving on the 10th floor nearly out of breath stating “they told me earlier there wasn’t going to be any meetings tonight” who then quickly opened the door to Ms. Daley’s office with someone immediately closing it behind him.
The twisted irony here is that the two issues nearest and dearest to the Republican and Democrat’s hearts was Economic Development and k – 12 funding. Yet, they absolutely obstructed and threatened me, a small start-up business, who has a three and five-year plan to grow and employ Virginia citizen’s, from barely getting it off the ground. I can only guess that when these legislator’s talk about jobs, jobs, jobs they aren’t referring to a small business like mine. Obviously their preference is darkness and secrecy. Well, I have news for all of them; I’m even more determined now to open the budget conference process up to the brightest sunshine ever!
The game is over if I have anything to do with it. I and others will persevere as our state seal embodies – “a reminder to future generations of the need to persist in maintaining the blessings of liberty” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_of_Virginia)
UPDATE: the following is an email sent today, March 15, 2010, to budget conferees, staff and two reporters.